Chronicle Book Review: Meth Mania: A History of Methamphetamine by Nicholas Parsons (2014, Lynne Reinner Publishers, 241 pp., $58.50 HB)
Heroin seems to be a good candidate. After all, if you read the newspapers, especially after a celebrity overdose death, you'll know there's an "epidemic" of heroin use (and related overdose deaths) happening. Except that, while heroin use has increased in the last few years (primarily as a consequence of crackdowns on opioid pain pills), it is hardly an "epidemic." According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the number of people using heroin on a regular is one-tenth of one percent of the population 12 and over. That number stayed stable from 2010 to 2012, the last year available for the survey, although it has apparently increased somewhat since then. And while overdoses are up, they are nowhere near the number of deaths for prescription pills.
But heroin, too, is old hat. One of the elements of a good drug panic is novelty. On that count, both "bath salts" (synthetic stimulants derived from cathinones) and "Molly" (a powder form of MDMA) are contenders for the crown. There's nothing like a zombie cannibal ripping someone's face off to propel a good drug panic, as was the case with bath salts, even if he didn't actually eat the guy's face and even, as it turned out, if he wasn't on bath salts.
While bath salts users are portrayed as scary insane people who aren't us, Molly users, on the other hand, are our sons and daughters, the innocent victims of evil drug dealers. Innocent victimhood is always good in whipping up a drug panic.
But again, the number of people actually consuming bath salts and Molly is miniscule. By far the biggest psychoactive drug problem in America, in terms of effects on the health of consumers, adverse impacts on others, and criminal justice system impacts, is alcohol. Yet, somehow, the country's most widely used and misused drug doesn't merit the screaming headlines, the hyperbole, the hysteria, and the hand-wringing. Why is that?
In Meth Mania, Nicholas Parsons provides some hints of an answer. While the book delivers what its title promises -- a critical history of meth, written with verve and insight -- it is also an exercise in applying the framework of social constructionism to the way we define and create social problems in general and drug panics in particular. Social constructionists, Parsons explains, attempt to understand how, why, and when certain social phenomenon come to be defined as social problems.
At any given moment, there are a panoply of issues -- child abuse, pornography, homosexuality, drug use, poverty, inequality, among others -- that could be defined as social problems. And social problems require solutions, darn it, otherwise, they wouldn't be problems. What social problems also require is someone to define them as such.
For Parsons and the social constructionists, these people are "claims makers." To be an effective claims maker, you must be credible and you must have access to the media. When it comes to drugs and drug policy, claims makers have traditionally been law enforcement, the medical profession, scientists, and moral entrepreneurs -- individuals or groups who seek power or influence by defining a phenomenon as a social problem and offering to do something about it. (I would posit that the advances we have seen in drug reform are, to some degree, the result of decades of work to both create alternate credible claims makers to cast the debates in new terms and to undermine the credibility ot traditional drug policy claims makers.)
Parsons is especially interesting in his discussion of law enforcement as a claims maker when it comes to drugs. Not only do police have authority and credibility as protectors of the public safety, they also have well-developed PR departments (although they don't call them that) that are constantly churning out press releases, er, I mean crime and arrest reports, they have very close and easy, and long-standing access to the media.
And, of course, law enforcement has its own interests to protect. Parsons notes one particularly brazen example of self-interested panic purveying, the "ice" scare of the late 1980s. The DEA jumped all over that -- until its annual budget was secured, then not so much.
This leads me to something Parsons didn't discuss, but which I have long wondered: Why, exactly, are police considered experts on drugs? Because they arrest drug users? Police arrest domestic violence suspects, too, but that doesn't make them experts on domestic bliss, as their own divorce and domestic assault rates indicate.
Parsons identifies three distinct meth panics -- the Speed Kills! methedrine panic of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the abortive "ice" panic of the late 1980s, and the meth panic that began near the end of the century and peaked around 2005, although its lingering effects still persist. In all three cases, although less clearly so in the latter, Parsons crunches the numbers on meth use and finds that the panics are related less to actual use rates than to media attention paid to the drug. And media attention paid to the drug is likewise driven not so much by actual use as by claims makers managing to get traction for their claims, for a variety of reasons.
Parsons is also good at elaborating how we construct "folk devils" on which to hang our anxieties, and how those folk devils have changed over time. This is the stuff of stereotyping and Othering. Meth users are "zombie McGyvers," tweaked-out tinkerers who haunt Walmarts in the middle of the night. Or they are -- gasp! -- gay nightclub orgiasts in New York City. That's when they're the Other.
In some adumbrations of meth panic, users shift from the scary Other to the innocent victim, who fall prey to evil Other drug dealers. And it's even more helpful when scary Other drug suppliers have brown skins, like the Mexican drug cartels who, in the wake of various moves to repress domestic meth production, such as the current effort in West Virginia to make OTC cold medications containing pseudoephedrine prescription only, have taken an ever-increasing share of the US meth market.
I refer to those bills generically as "The Mexican Methamphetamine Market Share Enhancement Act," and Parsons makes a similar point: All of the efforts to repress the use and manufacture of meth have had unintended consequences that in most cases have only exacerbated the problems they were supposedly designed to solve. The imposition of controls on prescription meth and other amphetamines in the late 1960s led directly to the first round of outlaw biker-manufactured meth, and the switch from "eatin' speed" to "shootin' speed." They probably also played a role in the expansion of cocaine and crack use in the 1970s and 1980s.
Restrictions on precursor chemicals used in the P2P method led to the explosion of pseudoephedrine-based meth cooking. And continuing and deepening restrictions on meth and precursors have created the space for the new synthetic stimulants, the so-called bath salts, whose effects can be even more intense than meth.
The latest meth panic may be receding, but its effects linger. People making small amounts of meth for personal use in the one-pot method are still being arrested and sentencing as if they were major drug lab operators. New anti-meth laws still emerge at statehouses each year. And people who use meth are still demonized as if far outlier worst cases are the normal meth experience.
Meth Maniais an excellent history of America's love-hate affair with its premier stimulant drug, but it is also a guidebook for deconstructing the making of drug panics in general. As such, its value extends far beyond a single drug. This one needs to be on the bookshelf of any serious drug and drug policy student.